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Involvement
of residents in urban micro-projects in Lebanon: political challenges and
practical proposals.

Case
study: A participative and concerted project approach: The Sociocultural centre
in Beirut.

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Hucen
Sleiman.

 

    Being under the French
mandate for more than twenty years, and staying under the French influence until
this date, Lebanon is a country that drew most of its political laws and urban
planning regulations from France. The French laws “Solidarity and Urban
Renewal” (2000), the Voynet law on the environment (2000) as well as the
law “Democracy of proximity” (2001), influenced the participatory
approach in the Lebanese urban projects: systematic involvement, and as far
upstream as possible, of residents and associations in the development of
projects that concern their living environment. These texts evoke not only the
duty of “information” and “consultation” of the population,
but are now referring to the need for “concertation” or even
“participation”. At the same time, a number of local elected
representatives and planning and construction professionals are  considering that it is no longer possible to
design projects without the involvement of the residents or users, suggesting
that the appropriation, the quality of management of the spaces created, and
the effective implementation of operations depend more and more on this
involvement.

The question of the implication of the inhabitants in projects of
development or construction seems in fact today even more unavoidable that the
territories of intervention are not virgins anymore. They are already
inhabited, “lived”; it is therefore difficult to envisage
“remaking the city on the city”, without taking into consideration
the social and spatial practices and representations that have marked and still
mark the identity of the places. Although the intention to involve residents in
project approaches is increasingly expressed in Lebanon as other Middle East
countries, it is often treated as an ancillary issue and has difficulty to be
truly integrated in the operational procedures. Sceptical attitudes or even
resistance remain, and assert themselves for example in:


The idea shared by some elected representatives and inhabitants that the
exercise of democracy can only be strictly representative: the former giving a
crucial importance to the power of delegation granted to them by the vote. The
latter believing that they do not have the skills to take the place of the
latter whom they have just designated to act and decide on their behalf;


A recurrent and persistent doubt among a large number of elected officials and
technicians about what can really bring the involvement of residents or users
in project approaches: it is for many a loss time, money, even legitimacy;


A fear of having to respond to excessive desires or to be confronted with the
famous principle of NIMBY;


A tendency to discredit the truly democratic and open nature of participatory
approaches, because of the “unrepresentative” nature of the groups
involved, a kind of alibi allowing to better justify the fact that one prefers,
ultimately solicit no one.

    The case studies and research-actions that I
have carried out in recent years have confirmed the existence of these
obstacles while clarifying their nature. These works have also revealed others,
more related to the decision-making methods and practices done by development
and construction professionals.


While those most reluctant to associate residents with a project are afraid to
give up some of their power, paradoxically, current operational approaches
announced as “concerted” or “participatory” often fail
because of structural weakness of project management, resulting more
specifically in a weak mobilization of the politics:  in a reluctance of elected officials to
declare their true objectives and to make choices at certain key stages of a
project process. However, engaging a participatory approach requires a
“strong project management”, that is to say, organized around a real
pole of decision makers, well identified, able to arbitrate and report to the
inhabitants at any time of the process.


The success of the operations is often placed by the elected officials, in the
choice of a providential master of work; as a result, the phases or missions of
diagnosis and programming are often neglected both in time spent and in the
investment they require in terms of assistance to project management. Nevertheless,
it is at their level that the credibility of a concerted or participatory
approach is already being played out.


The trust that many professionals have in their personal experience gives them
the feeling that working with residents and users will bring them nothing more
than what they already know, and discourages them from taking any participatory
steps.


There is often no real articulation between the approach taken with the
inhabitants and the process of project which advances according to its own
logic, the inhabitants do not know what become their remarks and proposals.
Public meetings sometimes organized or under the name of participation
workshops are more like places of communication or consultation.

 

    In fact, more generally, these reasons
seem, on the one hand, related to the difficulties encountered by many elected
officials to take and assume certain decisions and, on the other hand, to
methodological problems that project leaders often encounter, mandates clients
or technical services controlling the operations. The experience of the realization
of the sociocultural centre of Beirut which will be presented in the second
part of this essay, highlights the conditions that were necessary for the
implementation of a participative project approach. It should not be considered
as a model to be repeated identically, but it demonstrates the feasibility of
this type of initiative in Lebanon. This example also aims to provide
methodological guidelines concerning the organization of such approaches for
equipment projects that by their vocation can be considered as urban
micro-projects.

 

1. Involvement of
the people in development or construction projects: what are the challenges?

     The
last recommendations expressed by the legislator in favour of a greater
involvement of the inhabitants in actions that concern their living
environment, intervene in Lebanon in a current political context marked by what
we have got used to describe, as “political crisis”. More
specifically, the most recent elections only confirmed the existence of a
growing and perceptible loss of confidence of the civil society and its
representatives, characterized by rising rates of abstention and extremist
votes in elections, especially in socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

This
phenomenon is now interpreted as a questioning of the traditional forms of
government, as they have been expressed for thirty years, that is to say based
essentially on a “culture of delegation” and on a relative marginalization
of citizens in the elaboration of local choices. The researchers, sociologists
and political scientists, have shown how many citizens can no longer adhere to
a form of democracy that only gives them the right to designate every five or
six years, representatives responsible for taking all decisions in their place.
In fact, it is now a matter for the state and the local authorities, not only
to “re-interest” the citizen in the exercise of Democracy, but thereby
to better establish the legitimacy of the decisions taken. In fact, the
jurisdictional impasses in which the development, urban planning or
construction projects are more and more frequently found, due to inadequate and
too late public inquiry procedures, are also at the origin of the latest
provisions that encourage the residents to get involved as early as possible in
the projects. This concern to involve citizens in the development of decisions
that affect their living environment is not specific to the areas of urban
planning and development. “Public debates” on broad societal issues,
sometimes with complex scientific and technical dimensions, have recently
increased in number, while attempts are sometimes made to adopt techniques that
have been proven in other countries, such as than “consensus
conferences” or citizen juries. This trend illustrates a willingness of
our leaders to otherwise organize their relations with civil society. Lebanon is
now faced with the problem of reconciling “representative democracy”
and “participatory democracy”. These two modes of government are for
some antithetical, especially when the principle of democracy is associated
with the only election procedure. Is it possible to
grant more power to citizen-inhabitants while maintaining a political system in
which they elect representatives to manage “the affairs of the City”?
The answer to this question, in our opinion, requires a preliminary
clarification on the one hand the objects on which the involvement of the
inhabitants is envisaged – this is a participation in the elaboration of
projects or the decisions relating to them? – and on the other hand the
expected level of involvement. It is only by specifying these two dimensions
that we can avoid any misunderstanding in the debates around this subject, and
certain disillusions in the actions undertaken.

This
work seems even more necessary if the legislative texts advocate the
information, the consultation, or the participation of the citizens, they
remain little precise on the sense which they give to these terms as well as on
their modalities of application. If we can think that this second aspect is not
their responsibility and opens the possibility of developing methods adapted to
each context, the first point is in our opinion more problematic, because it
gives rise to misunderstandings but also amalgamation or even abuse, which
often discredit in fine the actions taken. Indeed, since these terms are often
used interchangeably and without reference to well-defined procedures in advance
of the decision-making process, they become overused and may appear as
demagogic announcing effects. They are not long in causing suspicion of
residents or community leaders, who fear of being manipulated, and may prefer
to stay away.

The different levels
of possible involvement of the inhabitants or users in the realization of a
project

Self-management means that the inhabitants alone
decide on the definition of the project and the budgets allocated. With
co-decision or co-management, the inhabitants are involved in the decision. The
introduction of “participatory budgets” (following the example of
Porto Alegre) allows participatory neighbourhood authorities to freely decide
on the use of part of the public money: elected officials commit themselves to
advance to endorse these choices.

The participation, often nowadays poorly
distinguished from the concertation, is the fact of allowing all the
inhabitants-users who wish it to be involved at all the stages of the
elaboration of a project. The idea is to leave the system open, and to ensure
that the reflections made by the user-user groups contribute directly to
transforming the project. Participation implies concertation (that is, working
time with groups of inhabitants, users), consultation and information.
Depending on whether the inhabitants participate freely in the elaboration of
the project with the operational bodies, or the political decision-making
bodies, participation can lead to co-production or co-decision respectively.
Note that in an open device, the co-production remains in the field of
participation, in a more closed system; it is similar to a strong consultation.
“Town Planning Workshops” may constitute co-production schemes, if
the modalities for taking into account the work done are well clarified and
effective.

The concertation consists in forming working groups
with the inhabitants-users. The latter are chosen for their
“representativeness”, sometimes directly by the contracting
authority, according to more or less random processes. For a long time in Lebanon,
the concertation remained institutional, politico-administrative and technical.
An additional degree of openness is now achieved when inhabitants are
associated with reflection. However, often remains uncertain, the question of
taking into account their work throughout and in the development of a project.
In an information and consultation system, the inhabitants are not directly
associated with the realization of project: they are informed by various media
of the progress of the project. They are invited to give their opinion at
public meetings or by the procedure of the public inquiry for example, without
the elected officials, the project owner is obliged to follow these opinions.
Consultation is often organized when the project is well advanced.

 

    While the technical quality of the projects
has increased over the last twenty years, thanks in particular to an
improvement in products and components as well as the development of the
technical skills of professionals, the consideration of socio-spatial practices
of residents-users, problematics of use, and management of spaces to rehabilitate
or build is far from being satisfactory.

In
fact, the enrichment or the modifications made to regulations and procedures
have had the effect of increasing the complexity of the legal and technical
aspects to be taken into consideration, and therefore a greater concentration
of technicians and owners of work on these dimensions.

In
other words, while we have not ceased over the last forty years to produce a
large number of precise standards or recommendations, and to try to make the
programming and design processes more rational, we can see that often an
inadequacy of built-up areas to the practices of daily life of the inhabitants
or users, which can lead to a lack of appropriation and accelerated
deterioration of certain places.

The assessments of
equipment that we have been carrying out for several years, for local
authorities or large administrations, have allowed us to understand the nature
and acuteness of the problems of use and management experienced by recently
built buildings, Highly technical, and sometimes designed by renowned architects.
The retrospective analysis of the operational processes relating to the
equipment evaluated shows how much these problems are largely related to an
overly prescriptive and technical approach to programming processes, to a low
capitalization of previous experiences concerning the uses and the actual modes
of operation of the programs. buildings once commissioned, and in a general and
transversal way, to a limited involvement of the different actors, future
inhabitants, users and managers, during the different phases of the projects.
The problems of use and appropriation that we have been able to identify, have
shown us how much they can translate into a social, economic and symbolic cost
that is important for a community, even putting into question the quality of
the service made.

Making
the assumption that the improvement of the quality of uses, and that the
appropriation of the built spaces are closely related to the modes of
apprehension and organization of the project processes, we thus experience
since the mid-1990s programmatic approaches based on concerted use assessments,
and on ongoing involvement of future inhabitants or users. This type of
approach is inspired by the methodological achievements of almost ten years of
research and experimentation conducted notably by the human sciences department
of the Scientific and Technical Centre for Building, with the support of the
former Urban Plan, and Plan Construction et Architecture, in the field of
social housing and housing for the elderly. We have tried to extend, adapt and
apply these principles to the realization of public facilities under
conventional operating conditions.

 

 

2. A participative
and concerted project approach: the example of the creation of the
sociocultural centre of Beirut.

 

The
realization of the sociocultural centre of Beirut is one of the four approaches
of programming of public equipment in which we engaged since three years as a
team of programming and assistance to the project management. It is today the
most accomplished of the operations that we carried out, for reasons that are
primarily due to the consistency of the project management in its desire to
ensure that this project is the result of work “conducted with the inhabitants,
for the inhabitants “. In addition to developing a “participative and
citizen” approach, the municipality had the ambition to optimize the
relationship between quality of use, environmental quality and economy of the
project.

The
permanence of this ambition – despite a change of municipal team during the
operation – has resulted in a permanent respect for the rules of the game
proposed, discussed and fixed at the launch of the project. When the
municipality asked us, it had already made a local social and cultural
diagnosis. This diagnosis was elaborated according to participative modalities
giving place to a wide diffusion of information by means of the press and
through the associations, to public meetings of exchanges with the elected
officials, to the organization of three groups thematic and a steering group
made up of inhabitants and elected officials. It confirmed the idea of
??creating socio-cultural equipment, while specifying the “life
project” of this structure, that is to say, its future vocation for the
city. This project was organized around three major areas of development
prefiguring the major areas of equipment, as well as the management principles
around which the architectural concept would be defined. This initiative, which
aims at starting a participatory process right from the diagnosis phase, and at
the same time determining a life project before engaging in architectural
programming, is quite rare in public infrastructure operations. The programming
approach that we proposed was part of the continuity of the process initiated
during the diagnosis.

It
was based on the following principles:


Organizing the consultation mechanism according to iterative modalities and
from the three bodies already in place but whose role was clarified:

– A politico-administrative body
composed of a steering committee arbitration around programmatic proposals and
the issues raised by thematic groups. This project management was open to all
representatives of local institutional actors likely to be involved in the
final validation of the project and in particular in its financing;

– An operational body comprising: a
project management assistance centre made up of the programming team, the
Federation of Social Centres (for assistance with the creation of a management
structure); a project management centre with the team of architects appointed
after a competition;

– An instance of citizenship and
uses structured around three thematic groups composed of inhabitants, whether
members or not of associations, future users or managers of the equipment. Two
of them worked on defining the activities to be developed in the equipment. The
third, led by the departmental federation of the social and socio-cultural centres,
had for mission to define the modes of organizational functioning and
management of the future equipment: it was thus at the origin of the creation
of an association composed of inhabitants, well before the construction of the
building;


Well dissociate working time around the program, decision-making or explanation
of choices;

– Ensure that our
programming team plays a role of facilitation and mediation between the
different working bodies: thematic groups of inhabitants and users, the
steering committee, then the project management team fourth instance designated
after competition;

– To allow at the launching
of the project, to all the inhabitants or users who wished it to take part in
the reflection; the candidates were divided into the thematic groups according
to their request: the local associations played a relay role to encourage
inhabitants and young people in particular to get involved in order to obtain a
diversity of socio-demographic profiles among the participants;

– To ensure that our
team can transmit to the steering group, as closely as possible, the results of
the work of the thematic groups that we animate, while in return, the
inhabitants were informed of the way in which we presented their reflections
and our proposals to the elected representatives and the result of the
arbitration. By the very nature of this approach, which they had to validate as
soon as the diagnosis was implemented, the political and institutional actors
concerned were particularly empowered: the project could only move forward if
they took the decisions they had to make when steering committee meetings.

This approach was
therefore based both on the operating methods of our representative system and
on the principles of “participatory democracy”, in the sense that
from the beginning of the project, each inhabitant was able to get involved in
a body of reflection and where the work carried out with the consultation
groups inhabitants-representatives associative fed effectively the evolution of
the project. In addition, the entire population was able to follow the progress
of the project thanks to the various public meetings organized by the
municipality and the information disseminated by the local press.

In the
programming-design adjustment phase, it can be said that the device has even
become related to a form of co-production. The groups carried out critical
analyzes on plans and then formulated reorganization intentions for certain
areas of the project that were transmitted to the designers through a
restricted steering group. The questions raised and the suggestions made
obviously stimulated the architects’ capacity for invention. As a result, the
project evolved during the design phases, without ever calling into question
the fundamental principles of the program. We were able to note how the work
carried out with the inhabitants and the associative representatives helped to
identify, during the development of the project, problems that often eluded the
elected representatives, the technicians or the team of architects, and which
were linked, for example, to the place of young people in the equipment or to
the relations of uses to be favored between the spaces of the project.

 

The continuous
involvement of these future users and users throughout the operation has been
possible thanks to the gradual establishment of trust between the various
actors. A priori skeptical at the beginning of the project, and in particular
when choosing the site they thought was already done by the municipality, the
inhabitants have thereafter less and less, as they found that their reflections
really contributed to decision-making. This approach also involved the use of
methods and techniques that allow each other to express themselves beyond mere
value judgments concerning aesthetics. Among these methods, the evaluation of
uses practiced on plans or from visits of equipment, was of a great resort.

CONCLUSION

    Through this example, it was necessary to
insist on the feasibility conditions of an approach involving the inhabitants
throughout a project, on its difficulties of implementation, but also on the
benefits of all kinds it can bring, which elected officials and technicians
often doubt.

    This type of operation, which concerns a
public facility with a major urban issue for a commune of 10,000 inhabitants,
is particularly conducive to experimenting with new project and democracy processes.
Listed within a project timeline that is a priori shorter than that of an urban
project, it can have an immediate and highly perceptible positive impact on the
life of a neighbourhood or city, knowing how important it is to be able to
appreciate quickly and concretely the consequences and the interest of their
implication in a project. They can also allow the establishment of working
habits and a certain trust between local actors and the population in contexts
where the culture of consultation or participation is still limited, acquired
valuable in the perspective of operations in longer and more complex futures.

 

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